Russia's internal struggle is a major focus of Stratfor analysis, including our recent 2018 Second-Quarter Forecast, which highlighted the difficulties that Russian President Vladimir Putin would likely face as he begins his fourth term. Putin is preparing a swath of reforms designed to preserve his country's internal stability, but his efforts in the legislature could be affected by a media boycott of the lower chamber in Russia's parliament, the Duma.
As political debate increases throughout the country, a rare ethical controversy is emerging in Russia. A dozen major media outlets have ended or limited their coverage of the lower chamber in Russia's parliament, the Duma, after its ethics committee mocked sexual harassment and assault allegations from journalists against Leonid Slutsky, the Chairman of the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee. Over 30 media outlets claim either that their journalists are no longer safe covering Duma affairs or that they are standing in solidarity with the media outlets that are backing the accusations.
In office for almost 20 years as a member of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, Slutsky has long been a controversial figure because of his crass speech and his refusal to pay either his taxes or his nearly 1,000 traffic fines. Three journalists from BBC Russia, Dozhd and Russian Television International have made significant sexual harassment allegations against Slutsky over the past year, and the reporter from Dozhd even recorded the assault. Initially, Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin told female journalists who felt harassed to find another job. And despite evidence, testimony and Slutsky's own admission of guilt, the Duma Ethics Committee excused him of any wrongdoing. The Kremlin, meanwhile, has refused to address the case or the fallout, with Putin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov ignoring four inquiries during his morning presser.
The issue has attracted media attention across Russia and adds to the growing political discourse in the country. A year ago, such accusations and backlash would have been unheard of in Russia. In January 2017, for example, the Duma passed an amendment that decriminalized domestic and familial abuse with little pushback from citizens or the media. Now, the boycott has attracted a large number of media outlets in a rare showing of unity between media and political factions. Publications such as the opposition advocate Novaya Gazeta, the Kremlin-friendly, oligarch-owned Kommersant and even the nationalist military newspaper published by Russian special forces have all joined the boycott.
The flurry of responses has escalated quickly, turning the scandal into an important political debate to track as Russian President Vladimir Putin begins his fourth term. This comes at a time when the Kremlin is preparing to push a string of tough legislation through the Duma in the coming months, including tax raises and possible budget or security reforms. Limiting coverage of such impactful and controversial legislation could end up working in the Kremlin's favor by masking the breadth of the changes, and it will make it more difficult for the wider public to follow Russia's reform process.